The basics of diabetes

Learn what it is, who's at risk and how to get help managing diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 30.3 million people—or 9.4% of the U.S. population—have diabetes. And this number is expected to keep rising.

Diabetes can lead to serious health problems, including kidney failure, nerve damage and blindness. It can also cause heart disease and stroke.

Fortunately, doctors are learning more about diabetes every day and are coming up with better ways to treat it. Between modern medicine and healthy lifestyle changes, managing diabetes safely and effectively is getting easier. Let's start with understanding how diabetes works.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which your blood sugar—or blood glucose—levels are too high. Basically, when you eat, food is broken down into glucose. Then a hormone, insulin, helps the glucose get from your blood into your cells to give them energy. This, in turn, lowers the amount of sugar in your blood.

People with diabetes are not able to use glucose as well as healthy people. In type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, the body doesn't make enough insulin, so glucose builds up in the blood. Typically, children or young adults get type 1 diabetes.

In type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes, the body makes enough insulin, but it can't use it efficiently. This is called insulin resistance. Over time, the body makes less insulin and glucose builds up in the blood.

Type 2 diabetes affects mostly adults, but more and more young people are getting it due to unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity. According to the CDC, in the U.S., about 1 in 5 children and teens ages 6–19 are obese—and there's a strong link between obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Watch this video to learn more about how balancing the food you eat may help keep your blood sugar at a target level.

Prediabetes is when you have higher-than-normal blood glucose levels, but not high enough to be called diabetes. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you have prediabetes, you're more likely to develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years.

Risk factors, symptoms and tests

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, but if a parent or sibling has it, you're more at risk. Environmental factors like exposure to a viral illness can also play a role.

For type 2 diabetes, risk factors include family history, as well as being overweight or physically active less than three times a week. Type 2 diabetes is more common in African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Your risk also increases as you get older.

Common symptoms of type 2 diabetes include urinating often, feeling very thirsty and tingling in your hands or feet. However, for many people, there are no noticeable symptoms.

Blood tests can determine if you have prediabetes or diabetes. They can also let you know how high your blood glucose levels are, so you can start making healthy lifestyle changes.

Getting help with diabetes

Some people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes can control their blood glucose with a healthy diet and regular exercise. Aside from cutting down on sugar and refined carbohydrates, choose foods high in fiber like whole grains, beans, vegetables and nuts. The American Diabetes Association recommends getting about 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week.

Other people are prescribed medication to treat diabetes. While your regular doctor can treat and monitor diabetes, an endocrinologist can be helpful for people who are having trouble getting their diabetes under control or are developing complications. To find an endocrinologist, sign in and use Find a Doctor to search for one in your network.

Need some extra help managing diabetes? It's one of the chronic health conditions that's supported by Regence Disease Management. You can get easy access to one-on-one support at no extra cost. Learn more about disease management.

If you have prediabetes or diabetes, take action and start those healthy habits. A few simple changes in lifestyle can help you avoid the health complications of diabetes.